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Women, Religious Persuasion and Social Activism in America 1780-1940

  Women, Religious Persuasion and Social Activism
in America 1780-1940

Patricia Bizzell (College of Holy Cross)
Jane Donawerth (University of Maryland)
Shirley Wilson Logan (University of Maryland)
Roxanne Mountford (University of Kentucky)

American women have frequently used religion as a platform for their rhetorical activities. Phoebe Palmer, Jarena Lee, and Aimee Semple McPherson were successful preachers. Using religion as a foundation for her rhetoric, Frances Willard headed the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the largest political organization in the nineteenth-century U.S. beyond the political parties. Lucretia Mott intermingled her defense of women's rights with a defense of women's preaching, and Anna Julia Cooper built her argument about the uplift of her race on the tenets of Christianity.

We contend that the field has often overlooked the religious elements of women's rhetoric, ignoring sermons and other religious texts and exploring the texts of women social activists primarily through secular lenses. There are several reasons for this oversight. Scholars are still recovering women's rhetorical texts, reconstructing their audiences, and identifying women's rhetorical theory. In addition, our field has often reduced the religious sentiments women express to a manipulative ploy or discounted the political impact of religious texts. In this workshop, we will take these religious views seriously, constructing a bibliography of primary sources, delineating genres used, analyzing audiences for women's texts and performances, and building models for understanding the ways in which such texts served multiple purposes.

Plan for workshop:

Friday afternoon: Before the workshop, we will circulate a list of 6-8 key questions with brief readings. Our first session is then devoted to discussion of these questions, such as:

  • How should we define religion for broad purposes of rhetorical studies?
  • What role did religion play in women's rhetorical activities, and how do we identify religion's influences in their work?
  • What extant are texts worth exploring for religious elements? Where do we look to uncover new texts?
  • What genres are worth exploring? How do we study reports or performances for which there are no extant notes or texts?
  • Who were the audiences for these texts and performances, and how did they respond?
  • What happens when we take the religious content of this period seriously?

Saturday morning/afternoon: Workshop on work in progress by participants (whether dissertation chapter, outline, essay draft, or other format-similar to work in 2008 RSA Conference Research Network sessions); this work will be circulated in advance.

Sunday morning: General discussion. What is the future of research on this topic? What should a special issue of RSQ or an edited collection addressing this area of study look like? What areas should be addressed? We will work to develop a draft table of contents, possibly including some work by participants and also indicating gaps to be filled.

For inquiries, contact Patricia Bizzell:

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